Increasingly, stern voices are shouting at those brave enough to walk the streets of Miami. And when we turn to respond, we are ashamed to discover we are being chewed out -- by a car.
"Warning! You are too close to the vehicle," proclaims the voice. "Step back!"
"Who do I look like? Will Robinson? Go drive yourself over a cliff!"
It is at this point that it usually dawns on us, with even greater embarrassment, that we are participating in a screaming match with an inanimate object.
According to those who sell them, car alarms that mouth off are becoming more and more popular among a certain crowd, largely young and male, that equates braggadocio with protection. Alarms with brand names such as Street Speak and Invisibeam rely on so-called perimeter detection systems to protect a car before a break-in -- by shouting down potential thieves, who are supposed to flee in fear, if not mortification.
The systems surround the owner's car with a wall of radar signals like those used by highway patrol officers to track speeders. When the barrier is broken, a voice module under the hood is activated. By adding more sensors, worried drivers can expand the protected area around their vehicles.
"It's like a bubble that you can inflate or deflate to the desired size," explains Mark Lewin, who sells the alarms at Sounds Good Stereo and Electronics, on Biscayne Boulevard near NE 22nd Street. "The way we install them, they can protect an eight-foot area around the car. With an additional sensor, you can send it out further, to about twelve feet."
The ability to seize such a large piece of what is usually public real estate does not, of course, come cheap. The Invisibeam, locally one of the biggest sellers, can be added to a run-of-the-mill alarm system for an additional $250, doubling the typical total cost. The price increases with each new sensor and module, capable of everything from automatically locking doors to rolling up windows.
Charles Davis, a reservations operator at BWIA Airlines, brags that after spending $1500 on his Invisibeam, he can protect an area of up to 120 feet around his 1993 Toyota truck, which set him back $21,000. Davis can set his alarm on either standard English or a more percussive rap version, which relies heavily on expressions like "Yo!" and "Step Back!"
"I've read that four-wheel-drive trucks like mine are prime targets for car thieves, so I decided to spend the extra money for my peace of mind," says Davis, proudly arming and disarming his alarm with a remote control. "At night I increase the range so that the truck monitors my entire yard."
The problem is that at that setting, Davis's Invisibeam is just as likely to be tripped by a wind-blown tree limb, a dog, or a pedestrian (no matter how unassuming and well-intentioned), as by a thief. "There have been isolated complaints about these systems," says Sounds Good Stereo's Lewin. "The Invisibeam field is often set too large, and the neighbors complain. In addition, passersby tend to play with it. You get a lot of people moving in and out of the field, setting off the alarm, shouting things like, 'Hey, Bob, watch this -- it talks!' The high number of false alarms lead to a cry-wolf syndrome."
For that reason, the talking alarms don't really prevent car theft, according to Lewin, who has his own theory regarding their popularity. "Nobody who is serious about car security is using these systems," he confides. "I think it has more to do with young guys trying to get laid by impressing women with their talking machines. I had one on my car for a time. In the beginning, it was cool but very soon, it became just an embarrassment."
Davis and others nevertheless swear by the talking alarms, and sales of several models are brisk. Tony Castano, a sales representative at Stereo Discounters on NE 163rd Street near 18th Avenue, says he has sold scores of Street Speak alarm systems since the store began carrying them six months ago. Manufactured by Voice Innovation of San Jose, California, the alarms, which cost about $200, allow car owners to record their own warnings. "People who buy it usually have something special to say," Castano remarks cryptically.
Voice Innovation's president, Arthur Zwern, who patented do-it-yourself customer recording, says the company's literature advises buyers not to offend anyone. "We tell them, for example, to say things like, 'Don't come any closer or you'll catch my cold,'" he adds. "That usually causes people to laugh rather than get mad." But Zwern admits he cannot speak for several other companies that have copied his idea. In fact he is suing two of them for patent infringement.
Such firms, many of them fly-by-night outfits importing voice modules and other components from Taiwan, also worry Michael Nykerk, president of Electronic Security Products of California. ESP, based in Canoga Park, sells Invisibeam and several other products to more than 800 dealers nationwide. All of its talking systems use prerecorded messages.
"Dealers will call us up and ask us for models that allow recording [by the buyer], but we would never produce something like that, because it can result in profane or overly aggressive messages," says Nykerk, the self-described father of the talking alarm, who introduced the first complete system in the United States in 1986. That product, however, only began hollering after a break-in -- now the idea is prevention. "The whole point is to keep people away from the vehicle, not get them upset," Nykerk stresses. "All our messages are spoken in a nice way. We don't want people to get angry and deface the vehicle. A lot of these newer companies that have sprung up are not as responsible as we are."
Invisibeam's messages are studio-recorded by professionals in nine different languages and dialects, including English and Spanish, and rap versions of both. All voices are male. Nykerk says he once tested a female version but found that customers "did not think it was forceful enough."
Indeed, the Invisibeam's messages, especially the rap version, sound forceful enough to border on hostility.
"Yo, I know you want to look inside, but I suggest you step away from the ride," a truck will announce, filling even a reasonable person with the desire to dance on its hood.
"Ease back from the ride," it adds if the intruder stands his ground. "Stop hangin' around, 'cause if you don't my alarm will sound."
The promise of such an exciting development makes the prospect of leaving even less likely.
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"You violated the perimeter!" the low voice bellows. "You've got five seconds to leave the scene. Five! Four! Three! Two! One!"
No explosion, just an alarm and the voice, hollering, "Someone is trying to break into my ride!"
At Sounds Good Stereo, Mark Lewin maintains that there are many similarly priced systems that will do a better job without all the macho blather. He recommends basic features such as an ignition kill switch, which disables the car in the event of a break-in. If a consumer wants to spend a lot of money, he adds, there are better things to purchase than cheap talk. For example, $2000 will buy the CallGuard system, manufactured by California-based Clifford Electronics. It allows one to wrest control of his car from a thief after it has been stolen -- even as it's barreling up an interstate. The car's cellular phone is programmed to call the owner at a preset telephone or beeper number, then offer a number of options -- "Press '1' to turn off the engine. Press '2' to roll up the windows. Press '3' to speak to the unauthorized person in your car."
This last option, no doubt, is bound to lead to profanity and other aggressive language, in this instance aimed at someone who's truly guilty. Too bad we can't all afford it.